CE Brief || The 33rd ASEAN Meet and how ASEAN can help DPRK rejoin international society

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On 16 October 2018, South Korean newspaper The Korea Herald published an article that reiterated our confidence in ASEAN’s role in fostering not only the growth of local entrepreneurship in the DPRK, but also building stronger inter-Korean economic ties in a pragmatic and consistent manner.

Due to be held in Singapore from 11th to 15th November this year, the 33rd ASEAN Summit will see leaders and top officials of ASEAN member states, China, Japan and South Korea gather to discuss regional initiatives such as the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, cybersecurity cooperation and counter-terrorism efforts , as well as international issues of general concern. Developments on the Korean peninsula have been raised in past high-level ASEAN events, and we expect a similar level of interest at the 33rd ASEAN Summit.

As the 33rd ASEAN Summit draws nearer, we would like to take the opportunity to highlight how Singapore and ASEAN have contributed to the economic “normalisation” of the DPRK, and how both players can continue to positively influence the country.

  1. Economic models of high relevance

As a region well-acquainted with economic experimentation, ASEAN can provide the DPRK with roadmaps for economic transformation. Developmental state models such as those adopted by Singapore and Indonesia can showcase the role of the state and markets in fostering stronger economic development — particularly significant, given the concerns of the bureaucracy in the DPRK about the role of government during reforms — while economic reforms such as Vietnam’s “Doi Moi” or Lao’s “Chintarnakarnmy” demonstrate how socialist states can manage a gradual transition from centralised economic planning to market-based, private-sector driven growth.

  Image credit: dnaindia.com

Image credit: dnaindia.com

All this is not just empty chest-thumping. In a recent article published by Associated Press, senior researcher with the Economic Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences Ri Ki Song expressed optimism that the DPRK can emulate the economic success of countries like Singapore and Switzerland should sanctions be lifted on the country. In particular, he noted how these countries were able to leverage on their geographical location to derive competitive advantage despite a lack of natural resources. Besides Singapore,  other Southeast Asian states have also taken advantage of Southeast Asia’s growing status as a strategic region for economic growth. The DPRK can reference Southeast Asia as a library of these various experiences, and draw out relevant lessons as it charts its own economic prospects.

     2. Technical Training and Knowledge transfer

No economic model is complete without well-educated labour, and ASEAN provides many opportunities for creating economic change from a ground-up level that complements top-down policy decisions of the state.

Economic agreements and cultural exchanges have already been made between the DPRK and ASEAN member states, and educational exchanges as well as technical knowledge transfer programs have recently been introduced as well. As highlighted by former South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong Seok, DPRK already has a high educational attainment rate — short-term visits or long-term learning programmes with ASEAN can help the country reap a bigger education dividend. Exchange programs between universities in the DPRK and in ASEAN can provide mutual learning opportunities, as well as platforms for South Koreans, North Koreans and Southeast Asians to build common cultural understandings.

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Short-term or even one-off programs like visits to entrepreneurship clusters across Southeast Asia can provide immediate exposure to a wide range of ideas and concepts. Our study trip to Malaysia in 2015, which brought participants to the Malaysia Global Innovation & Creative Centre (MaGIC), Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) and Sunway Lagoon, provided a platform for DPRK participants to interact with leading agencies and be acquainted with policy frameworks of high relevance to the DPRK.  In that same year, we placed a pioneer batch of 11 DPRK participants into a three-month mini-MBA program we designed and implemented in Singapore; we also placed four of those participants into internships at a Singaporean startup incubator.

Through these experiences, our participants gained valuable insights into many aspects of business as well as practical observations on startup development. Realising the value of certain concepts such as startup incubators, the participants translated this newfound knowledge into creating an accelerator program based in Unjong Park. The DPRK participants were amenable to starting this program not only because they saw economic value in it, but also appreciated the fact that doing so allows them to inform economic policy via small-scale business experimentation.

Academic institutions, nonprofits and government agencies can also provide opportunities for skills-based training for North Koreans. At Choson Exchange, our past programs have enabled participants to learn about economic policy and entrepreneurship by visiting government ministries, attending classes at partner universities or participating in mentoring workshops led by local entrepreneurs.  Our Singapore workshop in 2015 introduced participants to product commercialisation strategies and the Lean Canvas Model, a popular framework for entrepreneurs to conceptualize business ideas, and our 2014 training program conducted in both Vietnam and Singapore exposed participants to land lease policies and laws, which led to changes in property rights regulations in economic zones in 2015.

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Additionally, ASEAN member states can also provide valuable lessons to the DPRK in terms of logistics and rural land reform. Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were among the top countries that led the global logistics market in 2015, and cross-border logistics, together with the relevant policy considerations, can help inform  future plans for inter-Korean rail logistics in future. In Vietnam, rural land reforms to achieve economies of scale have tripled farm production between 1990 to 2013, and a similar situation is occurring in Cambodia.

3. Supporting the DPRK’s transition to global citizen

As a secular platform that espouses non-interference in members’ domestic affairs and consensual decision-making, ASEAN has aided dialogue with the DPRK by being a consistent channel for the DPRK to engage in international diplomacy - even when other countries’ policies became extremely confrontational. Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN Secretary General and a friend to Choson Exchange, first invited the DPRK to participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2000. The ARF remains the only multilateral regional institution that DPRK  participates in after the collapse of the Six-Party Talks in 2009, and ASEAN has been credited for de-escalating tensions through dialogue-based dispute resolution.


ASEAN’s role in connecting the DPRK with the international community has a long history. Cooperation has taken place on various levels between ASEAN member states and the DPRK since the 1970s - in 1979, then-Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohammad brought a 25-member delegation to Pyongyang and signed a trade agreement; Singapore had trade relations with the DPRK since the late 1960s. ASEAN has been a partner to DPRK’s economic development, and we hope that when sanctions are lifted, ASEAN can be a partner to the two Koreas, and Northeast Asia, as a neutral intermediary supporting DPRK’s integration into global society.